President Trump and Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University commencement, 2017

How Religion Got Trump

Faith in the 2016 Election

Ordinarily, a year is far too short a time to make a difference in the history of American religion, culture, or politics. But then 2017 was not by any measure an ordinary year.

Two months after my book Getting Religion was first published, Donald Trump was elected president, an upset that sent populist shock waves throughout this country and Western Europe. Although Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million to Hillary Clinton, the Republicans won control of both chambers of Congress plus a majority of state houses and state legislatures—the largest defeat for the Democratic Party since 1928.

However, Trump finds his administration enveloped by billowing scandals; his White House staff riven by leaks and rivalries; his political agenda stalled and his policies incoherent. Several of the president’s former and current advisers—including his son-in-law Jared Kushner—are under investigation by both a Senate subcommittee looking into Russian efforts to manipulate the election in Trump’s favor, and by a special prosecutor investigating possible criminal acts by Trump associates. Trump himself has been accused of attempting to suborn former FBI Director James Comey before firing him shortly after taking office.

Trump’s swift and unexpected ascent to the nation’s highest office followed religious, class, and demographic fault lines that were not in evidence only a few years ago. His success was fueled in part by years of political non-cooperation in Congress, by the recognition that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were no less beholden than the Republicans to Wall Street and the rich, and especially by steady erosion of white middle-class workers’ economic status, prospects, and self-respect, particularly in the financially pressed sectors of the Middle West. When Trump blamed Mexican immigrants and “radical Islamic terrorists” for the nation’s ills, these economic outsiders applauded. When Trump promised to make America “great” again, they heard “prosperous” and “white” again.

Once more “it was the economy, stupid,” even though President Obama had brought the country slowly out of economic crisis. It was also about social and geographic location—“us” against the coastal elites. But despite data showing Trump capturing the “religious vote,” very little of it was about religion. 

Much—far too much, in my view—was made in the media of exit polls showing that 81 percent of Evangelicals voted for Trump despite his three marriages, his boastful womanizing, and his meager Christian credentials. Trump was baptized a Presbyterian as a child but it was clear that, for him, Calvin Klein had more name recognition than John Calvin. Asked during the campaign if he ever asked God for forgiveness, Trump notoriously replied, “I don’t think so.... I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Two Evangelicals with bold-face names—Billy Graham’s son Franklin and Jerry Falwell’s son Jerry Jr.—claimed to know that Trump had recently become a serious Christian, but there was no evidence that he ever reads the Bible, attends church, or looks to someone as his pastor. But there was considerable evidence to the contrary. During the campaign he identified his “spiritual adviser” as Paula White, a former model turned Orlando televangelist, sometime mega-pastor, and fulltime “life coach” who, like Trump himself, has been married three times.

Trump’s embrace by Graham and Falwell Jr. was manifestly political and both were rewarded with roles at his inauguration. But neither man exercises anything like the clout their more gifted and famous fathers enjoyed. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the 2016 election was how few local Evangelical pastors got involved in either campaign. A great many of them lost political heart after Texas Senator Ted Cruz, an authentic Evangelical Christian and certified political conservative, dropped out of the Republican race.

Why then (if the exit-poll numbers survive later analysis), did four out of five voters who identified as Evangelicals choose Trump? Unfortunately, exit polls alone cannot tell us that. Like many other Americans, white Evangelicals felt they had three unpleasant choices. They could choose to stay home election day, which nearly 39 percent of American voters did; they could overlook their dislike or distrust of Hillary Clinton and her party and vote for her anyway. Or they could embrace Trump despite his evanescent religious credentials and his manifest character flaws.

To opt for Trump required overlooking his moral turpitude and manifest lack of character; to accept as authentic his conversion to political conservatism

To choose Clinton, they would have to overlook her decision to drop all previous moral qualms about supporting abortion on demand; ignore her ties to President Obama’s stand on certain religious-liberty issues, and forget their doubts about her Methodist presumption of moral probity. To opt for Trump required overlooking his moral turpitude and manifest lack of character; to accept as authentic his conversion to political conservatism; and to bet that he would make good on promises to appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court (which he did), to curb abortion on demand, and expand religious liberties for Evangelical businesses that refuse to service gay marriages.

The Evangelical justifications for supporting Trump or not were dramatized by the public spat between Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, a congregation with a long history of appointing outspoken theological and political conservatives to its pulpit, and the Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Nine months before the GOP Convention, Jeffress published arguments for supporting Trump, if other, more Evangelically fit Republican candidates failed to win the nomination. “Seven years of Barack Obama have drastically lowered the threshold of spiritual expectations Evangelicals have of their president,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News. “Evangelicals will settle for someone who doesn’t hate them like the current [holder] of the Oval Office appears to.”

Jeffress did not specify in what ways Obama had offended Evangelicals, but five months later, in an interview on National Public Radio, he described Evangelicals as divided between “idealists” who wanted “a strong conservative in the White House” and those “realists” willing to settle for the most electable conservative candidate; “many of those are going for Donald Trump.” After the publication of tapes on which Trump bragged of groping “beautiful” women, Jeffress told NPR that what was important was taking the right stand on issues, not personal morality: “what I’m looking for is a leader who’s going to fight ISIS and keep this nation secure. I don’t want some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek.” Clearly, he was not interested in “what Jesus would do.”

Speaking often and with passion as the Southern Baptist Convention’s point man on religion and public affairs, Russell Moore took the opposite position. If character mattered when Bill Clinton ran for president, he argued, then character still matters when Donald Trump is a candidate. “His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord,” Moore wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times in September 2015. “He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the ‘top women in the world.’” Three months later in National Review, Moore reiterated his position that moral character matters more in a president than issues, specifically citing Trump’s willingness to ban Muslim immigrants as contrary to the historic Baptist support for freedom of religion. Candidate Trump tweeted right back.

After Trump won, a defeated Moore turned the other cheek and published a piece in the Washington Post calling on Christians to pray for the new president and for reconciliation within the church. Southern Baptist Trump supporters were calling for his head. Pastor Jeffress was invited by Trump to preach at the traditional religious service the morning of inauguration day. In his sermon he grandly compared Trump to Nehemiah, an Israelite leader who had brought his people back from Babylon, and declared that God Himself had decided the election for Trump.

Moore lost because he found himself on the wrong end of a process which, according to Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, has seen white Evangelicals go “from the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.” Indeed, according to PRRI data, even religiously non-affiliated Americans (the “Nones”) are more likely to hold officeholders to some standard of personal morality.

My own reading of Trump’s success with white Evangelical voters is that after eight presidential elections, most of them have become accustomed to pulling the Republican lever—thus completing the political captivity of the white Evangelical vote that conservative party operatives set out to accomplish in 1972. Inevitably this transformation would come to entail the subordination of a candidate’s moral integrity, not to mention his Evangelical bona fides, to that candidate’s stands on social and economic issues. It took a candidate like Donald Trump to complete the conversion process.

Still, we do not yet know why so many white Evangelical men and women supported Mr. Trump. In a fit of political righteousness, Bill Clinton blamed his wife’s loss on “angry white males,” suggesting thereby that Hillary was a victim of racism and sexism. Mrs. Clinton eventually added her own list of specific causes, including Comey’s announcement ten days before the election that he was reopening the FBI’s investigation into her use of a private server. But neither Clinton blamed the campaign, the candidate, or the gap between what many see as her personal sense of moral righteousness and the very different assessment of her detractors.

I would argue that Trump won mainly because too many Americans for too long had experienced no upward mobility, and feared for their own and their children’s economic future. Since a third of white Evangelicals earn less than $30,000 a year and more than half (57 percent) less than $50,000 a year, economics offers a more cogent explanation than religion of why Trump won the white Evangelical vote. 

Only about one American adult in four puts religion at or near the center of his or her life, which is the same percentage who do not identify with any religion. What can be said about the 50 percent whose religious beliefs, behavior, and belonging lie somewhere in between? Watching Trump’s inauguration helped answer that question for me.

Trump’s inaugural was also the first to feature preachers of what is broadly labeled the “prosperity gospel”

Trump invited six clerics to participate in his inauguration, one more than the previous record-holder, Richard Nixon. The choices tell us not only something about the political use of inaugural rituals but, more importantly, about the shifting contours of American Christianity. Two of them were pro forma invitees: the (Roman Catholic) cardinal-archbishop of New York, Trump’s home town, and a rabbi from Los Angeles. Neither are close friends of Trump. Two others, a self-proclaimed African-American bishop from Detroit and the leader of a Hispanic Christian coalition, brought needed ethnic diversity to the program. Both served on Trump’s “religious advisory board” but until late in his campaign, the candidate had never met either man. The fifth, and the only woman, was the aforementioned Paula White. The sixth was Franklin Graham, a Trump supporter who had held “Values” rallies in fifty states during the campaign and later declared that “for the states to go the way they did, in my opinion, it was the hand of God.”

Apart from the cardinal and the rabbi none of the other four, including Graham, have formal seminary training—mirroring Trump’s own lack of political or governmental experience. None belong to a mainline Protestant or traditional Evangelical church. All four are prime examples of what I have called entrepreneurial religion: three are self-anointed ministers and stars of their own television programs, and the third, a Pentecostal, is known chiefly for his leadership in organizing Hispanic Christians.

In sum, what we saw at the inaugural evidenced the long-term shift away from the denominations and institutions that once characterized American Protestantism to the free-standing, doctrinally fluid, therapeutically inclined, market-oriented entrepreneurial churches and para-church organizations that have come to characterize much of American religion. Together with Pentecostal congregations, churches of the independent and non-denominational variety now represent the most rapidly growing sector of American Christianity.

Trump’s inaugural was also the first to feature preachers of what is broadly labeled the “prosperity gospel,” a form of entrepreneurial religion that explains the president’s religious proclivities far better than the president has done himself. “Donald Trump is the first American president whose only religious impulses arise from the American prosperity gospel,” says professor Kate Bowler of Duke Divinity School, the foremost expert on the history and development of the prosperity gospel.

Like the titles of some of Trump’s books (Think Big and Think Like a Champion), prosperity gospellers offer their listeners the biblical secrets of turning “losers” into “winners,” to use Trumpian vocabulary, by drawing down God’s blessings in the form of better health, wealth, and emotional happiness. Sociologically, the prosperity gospel appeals mainly to the have-nots and have-not-enoughs. Theologically, it turns faith into a technique: by naming specifically what you want—a new Lexus, say, or a bonus check, or improved marital relations—and by tithing in support of the prosperity ministry, the believer acquires the power to press the sort of claims on God that Jesus promises in John 10:10: “I came to give you life, and to give it more abundantly.” The operative message of this mutant Christianity is simple: “Ask not what you can do for God, but what God can do for you.” 

In her book Blessed, Bowler traces the roots of the prosperity gospel back to the early twentieth century, showing how it draws from early metaphysical mind-over-matter movements; Pentecostal faith healing as exemplified by Oral Roberts; the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale, whose Manhattan church young Donald Trump attended and who presided at his first marriage; and the possibility thinking of Robert Schuller, to name a few. She also teases out the connections between the prosperity gospel and the American myth of the “self-made man,” which Trump has appropriated for his own self-presentation.

The prosperity gospel is the form in which tens of millions of Americans now “get religion.” Bowler calculates that 17 percent of U.S. mega-churches (those with at least ten-thousand members) preach some form of the prosperity gospel. That does not include the millions of cable-television viewers and streaming social networkers who follow prosperity mega-stars like Joel Osteen, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Creflo Dollar. A 2006 poll for Time magazine found that nearly a third of American Christians believed that “God enriches those who give.” In the era of Trump’s ascendency, it’s religion as the art of the ultimate deal.

From time to time, a book appears that momentarily captures the mood swing within American Christianity. In the mid-1960s, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City was such a book, blending into a single, optimistic vision the we-shall-overcome confidence of Dr. King’s civil-rights movement with the urban cool of the Kennedy White House and the outsized ambition of Johnson’s Great Society programs. In the spring of 2017, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option articulated for many traditional American Christians their feeling of defeat—as in, “we have lost the culture wars.” Oddly enough, both books call for the church to withdraw from roles in the national public square: for Cox because “secular man” had “come of age” and no longer needed tutelage by the church; for Dreher because secularism’s cultural triumph, capped for him by the legalization of same-sex marriage, allows no role for orthodox Christians who hope to influence public affairs. 

Named after St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, the option Dreher advocates is the creation of new, smaller communities and institutions on the local level in which Christians and their families can sustain and pass on the moral and intellectual truths of what he calls Christianity’s “Great Tradition.” Forming Christians “who live out Christianity according to the Great Tradition,” Dreher argues, “requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.”

Building character-forming communities is a recurrent feature of American religious history. It is as old as the Puritan settlements and can be as ambitious as the creation of the Mormon Zion, as clannish as an Hasidic neighborhood, or as selectively porous as the embedded Catholicism of my youth. And the process repeats itself every time practitioners of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-Christian religions settle on these shores.

In the course of that history, the Christian majority has seen its institutions—schools, charities, hospitals, and especially colleges and universities—lose their specifically religious character. Not to secularism, so much, as to their own institutional will to survive in an ever-expanding public sphere. Regardless of which political party controls Congress or the White House, the concentration of money, influence, and power in the nation’s capital has grown enormously since the 1950s, when Eisenhower warned us about the developing military-industrial complex. Today the local is no longer just local, and with globalization the national is rarely just national. We are all interconnected; our circles of dependency have expanded farther than we can see. And in our newly digitalized universe there really is no time or place to opt out. The emergence of a president like Donald Trump reflects an anxious, unstable, and uncertain society. How hard it is to heed the psalmist’s soothing admonition: “be still, and know that I am Lord.”

Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: 

Kenneth L. Woodward, author of Getting Religion, was religion editor of Newsweek for thirty-eight years.

Also by this author
Graham's crusade

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Culture